Felix Soto has traded the target on his back for a crossbow and arrows.
After two seasons of being chased by pretty much all of the North Suncoast — and still leading the area pack — the Land O'Lakes senior has decided to play the role of hunter this year.
Soto's approach and running style have changed, making him a more complete and obedient runner. He's listening to his coach for the first time, and the payoff could result in a state title.
The change is subtle.
Instead of running fast and furious, fighting from the start to be the lead runner, he runs at a pace that allows him to warm up even if the lead group pulls away.
Soto has been reluctant to do so in the past, preferring to set leads most of the field found insurmountable.
Now he warms up the first two-thirds of the race. Then like a fox, he comes out of his hole in the final third and begins the chase.
Soto tried the new approach at the Brooksville Red Mule Labor Day 5K last month, finishing second in 15 minutes, 45 seconds.
"When you're out there (leading the race) you're trying your best and hope you don't fall off," Soto said. "When you are behind, you think he's going to be hearing my footsteps. He'll be more intimidated and he'll hear me getting closer."
Soto and Gators coach Kris Keppel believe the approach could result in Soto's best season.
He has three goals and all are within reach: Soto wants to win an individual state title after earning sixth place — his best finish — last season. He wants to lead his teammates to a state berth, which narrowly escaped them last season after a key runner quit the night before the regional. And he wants to leave Land O'Lakes as the fastest distant runner the school has ever produced.
To land the trifecta, he'll need to avoid injuries that kept him hobbled all summer. He must keep the team together. And he must cut his times as he closes in on a pair of postseason meets on fast courses that could help him eclipse Steven Bell's all-time fastest time of 15:18 in 2005.
Bell picked up that time at a Sunshine Athletic Conference meet at Hudson, which was set up virtually as a flat road race. Keppel said Soto will have a pair of races later in the season where he will get to run on similar courses.
But is he durable?
Soto missed up to three weeks this summer with ankle injuries, then an illness.
"I've been on and off and on and off," Soto said. "August came and I started practicing hard. I didn't think I was that fast, but I ran well at Red Mule."
Overall, this should be a pretty decent season for the Gators. Keppel believes he has his best team in 15 seasons as coach. And after last year's disappointing finish with a narrow miss to earn a state berth, the Gators are in the mix to make it this season.
Keppel has incorporated an increased workout load to help his runners gain strength. And the team has implemented Soto's new strategy.
"We're not going to go out and race every week and go all out," Keppel said. "We're in one of the toughest regions in the state.
"This is probably the best team I've ever had. Felix has a good chance to win the state meet."
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 580-5315.